Sen. Carona: "You could be paying as much as $10 to $15 a day in tolls to go across town to see family, to go to your job."
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
By David Schechter
There's an easy way to lose an election in Texas, raise taxes. But some transportation leaders say it's time to raise the gas tax.
Without more road money, they say the future looks like a giant toll road.
Here's something people can count on, the price of stamps will always go up. In 1991, a stamp cost 29 cents. Eighteen years later, it now costs 42 cents to deliver a letter.
Just like a stamp is supposed to cover the cost of mailing a letter, the state gas tax is supposed to cover the cost of building roads. Eighteen years ago, the gas tax in Texas was 20 cents. Today, it's still 20 cents.
"We're really headed for a transportation calamity, if you will," said Sen. John Carona.
Adjusted for inflation, that 20 cents is now worth about 14 cents. Now, subtract a nickel that the state constitution dedicates to education.
"Now, you're down to nine cents," Carona said.
And here's where the nickel-and-diming really starts.
The gas tax funds the entire operation of the Department of Public Safety, at $600 million a year. Also, $52 million goes to transport Medicare patients to their appointments. There is also money for drunk driver revocation hearings, school buses for rural districts and even promoting arts and tourism.
In Austin, they're called diversions.
In the last 20 years, they've drained $18 billion from gas tax revenues.
"We're basically in the maintenance business," said Michael Morris, a North Texas transportation czar.
Morris coordinates road projects across the region. Of the 35 major projects on the books, every one is being reviewed as a possible toll road. There is simply not enough money to build free ones.
"I think everybody wants to stand up and say I want something and I don't want to pay for it," Morris said.
Everybody, it seems, except Carona, a Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee.
Carona said he wants to end diversions and, hold your breath, raise taxes. He's obviously not worried about losing an election.
"Nobody wants a tax increase on their record no matter how small it is, and no matter how much it represents the most fiscally responsible choice," he said.
He said he is sticking his neck out "because somebody needs to."
Carona's plan would tie the gas tax to increases in construction costs.
The average Texan would pay another $15 a year, which he says will soon be a real bargain.
"The effect will be in another 10 to 15 years," Carona said. "You could be paying as much as $10 to $15 a day in tolls to go across town to see family, to go to your job."
Carona said while most North Texans get that, will legislators? Last session, Carona called a news conference on the gas tax and invited his fellow lawmakers to stand with him. No one showed up. This year, he said, he'll try again.
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